Reaching New Heights

Marlon Castillo | New University

Seven-foot-tall Conor Clifford is ready for the court after a summer in the weight room.

Michael Wilder, 6 feet 2 inches. Dominique Dunning, 6 feet 3 inches. Mike Best, 6 feet 10 inches.

Conor Clifford, 7 feet, has size 17 shoes. He had a growth spurt in eighth grade that sent him shooting from 6 feet 1 inch to 6 feet 7 inches by the end of the school year.

“He’s the only seven-footer that I’ve coached down here,” said trainer Mike Nagler as Clifford and the rest of the UC Irvine men’s basketball team worked out on the Friday before their Nov. 10 season opener against Nevada. As Clifford performed his sumo deadlifts, his  teammates cheered him on with  “yee Conor,” and as a photographer snapped away, another said “You don’t smile when you’re lifting weights!”

Hailing from Huntington Beach and Ocean View High School, Clifford wasn’t much of a sports-centric child growing up. He was the chubby kid, the “one who just kind of sat around,” Clifford said of his childhood. It wasn’t until the end of middle school, heading into high school, when Clifford began to seriously play basketball.

While at Ocean View, Clifford was coached under the late Jim Harris, who led the men’s basketball team for the entire 33 years that the school has been open. It was Harris who got Clifford really into basketball, and toward the end of his freshman year, Clifford moved up to varsity and hasn’t stopped playing since.

“Everyone was always saying that I’d be a good basketball player,” Clifford remembers.

But it wasn’t until he played at Ocean View with “a good team and good guys” that made him really get into the game.

So far, Clifford’s transition from high school to college has been relatively easy, although he mentions that the training has increased significantly in addition to the degree of instruction from coach Russell Turner.

Clifford and Coach Turner go way back. Back in high school, when colleges like ASU, Cornell and Columbia were scouting Clifford, Coach Turner had already spotted the future Anteater in his junior year, long before the other colleges did.In Clifford’s opinion, Coach Turner was the most honest compared to the other coaches who put on “a fake car salesman’s smile.”

“Coach Turner is straight to the facts, he’s honest and he’s a good guy,” Clifford said.

With more practices, more workouts than ever before and an extensive weight training regimen (Clifford’s first time hitting the weights), the UCI freshman had a lot to take in. In spite of all that, he credits the great guys and great coaches as the people that make it all worthwhile.

Since the start of summer and since he began weight training, Clifford has lost 40 pounds and now weighs in at a much leaner 250 pounds. Nagler credits Clifford with hard work and notes his impressive, positive response to the regimens thus far; Clifford is already reaping the benefits of the strict routines.

When Clifford came in, his mile time was 9:30, but he has managed to slice it down to a straight seven minutes, trimming more than two minutes from his time.One of the biggest things that Clifford has been training to improve is his quickness and agility, his stamina and his speed on the court in order to prolong his playtime during games.

For his low post position, Clifford’s specialty is blocking shots at the free throw line due to his size. Coach Turner notes that Clifford’s size advantage makes him a perfect candidate for his position.

So what was it like stepping onto the Irvine court for the first time?

“I remember when I heard my name, I was so pumped up, the adrenaline was rushing. I was so pumped up to get on the court that I actually ran to the wrong spot when I went to go sub in,” Clifford said. “The guys told me to go further down the court and I ended up scoring a dunk as my first point.”

Even with this minor but laughable gaffe, Conor was happy with his performance at the exhibition game. On Saturday’s season opener, Clifford went in during the first half and managed to score two points from the free throw line, but was soon knocked in the lip and received stitches on the bench. For the last 33.4 seconds of the game, Clifford subbed in, stitches and all, and ran just as hard and blocked just as well before he got pummeled in the face.

Here at UCI, Clifford is currently undecided/undeclared but is thinking about declaring a business major. Although juggling college academics and basketball is more time-intensive than high school, he is not having any trouble making a smooth transition.

 

One thing making the jump to college athletics and academics simpler is his hall in Middle Earth. While most Irvine athletes choose to live in Mesa Court their first year because of its proximity to Crawford, Clifford was placed in Gondolin, which, for the freshmen, is “the best hall in Middle Earth.” For the ’Eaters’ first exhibition game against Vanguard University, about 30 of his hallmates came out to support their hallmate in his first game.

Marlon Castillo | New University

In addition to his exceedingly supportive hall, Clifford credits his family as being his biggest supporters and motivation when it comes to putting in hard work.

“My dad and mom were my biggest supporters my entire life,” Clifford said.

His mom, who recently passed away in March from colon cancer, gives Conor an extra boost to work that much harder.

In the coming three years, ’Eaters can expect to see a lot from Clifford, whose strong work ethic and potential soars through the roof — as Nagler mentioned. And in the words of Coach Turner, “work harder big fella.”